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Brash Georgian president may have gambled and lost

Times Staff Writers

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a U.S.-trained attorney regarded by Washington as a pro-democracy wunderkind, has made a political career of brinkmanship with neighboring Russia. This time, he may have overplayed his hand.

Saakashvili helped oust former Soviet Foreign Minister and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003 and became Europe’s youngest president the following January at the age of 36. He has been jousting with Moscow ever since over control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two pro-Russian regions of his country.

A lover of Georgian wine and Western culture, Saakashvili is described as supremely confident and even autocratic. He moved troops into disputed South Ossetia last week as a new Russian president presided in Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Bush visited Beijing, and much of the world’s attention was focused on the Summer Olympics. Georgian forces came under overwhelming air and ground attack and were quickly repelled.

Saakashvili says his forces were provoked into action in South Ossetia; Russia accuses him of launching an offensive move against his nemesis. Either way, he has ended up in a more precarious position.

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“It was a calculated gamble and he miscalculated,” said F. Stephen Larrabee, corporate chair in European Security at the Rand Corp. in Washington. “He has been forced to withdraw. It’s a military blunder. It caused an international incident.”

While Georgians are likely to rally behind Saakashvili as long as they feel under threat from Russia, in the long run he may face a backlash for launching military action that failed and may make it impossible to bring a breakaway region back into the fold.

The move may also have jeopardized Saakashvili’s larger goal for Georgia to join NATO, observers said. They said Saakashvili’s pursuit of NATO membership has been making the Russian government nervous and more aggressive, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is unlikely to want a new risk-taker in the family.

Saakashvili has been the Bush administration’s poster child for pro-Western movements. He keeps an autographed photograph of himself with Bush in his office and is one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. The United States supplied him with military aid to build his army and he, in turn, sent Georgian troops to Iraq to support the U.S. mission there.

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Analysts credit Saakashvili and a small circle of young advisors with cleaning up corruption in Georgia and revitalizing the economy. However, they say he is impatient, both with internal political dissent and secessionist movements.

As recently as last month, the U.S. government publicly cautioned Saakashvili to pursue diplomacy in Georgia’s dispute with Russia over the provinces. At a joint appearance with Saakashvili last month in front of Tbilisi’s new glass-domed presidential palace, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised to fight for Georgian membership in NATO.

But she also said pointedly that “violence should not be carried out by any party.”

Now Saakashvili is complaining that the West has failed to come to his side.

“We are receiving only moral and humanitarian help from the international community, but we need more than that,” he said in a televised address Monday evening.

He said Russia plans to oust him and take control of Georgia. “An attempt of repeated occupation and enslavement of Georgia, depriving our country of its independence is underway,” Saakashvili said. “Russia’s goal is to put an end to the existence of the Georgian state.”

Whether or not Russia wants control of Georgia, it’s clear that Russians feel tremendous personal animosity toward Saakashvili, whom they view as a U.S. puppet bent on harming Russian interests.

Robert Legvold, a Columbia University professor who is an expert on Russia and Georgia, quoted Russians close to Putin as saying that the Russian prime minister views Saakashvili the same way the U.S. government views Fidel Castro.

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“Putin has an extraordinarily adverse view of Saakashvili himself,” Legvold said.

Saakashvili was touring the Georgian city of Gori dressed in a flak jacket Monday when his security detail threw him to the ground for fear that they were about to be attacked by Russian warplanes. The move proved to be unnecessary but highlighted the risk his team believes he faces.

Tall and brash, Saakashvili has been a larger-than-life character. He is a Georgian nationalist married to a Dutch woman and moves seamlessly among spoken Georgian, Russian, English and French.

A graduate of Columbia and George Washington universities in law and human rights, Saakashvili won election in January 2004 with 96% of the vote. He vowed to fight corruption at home and to re-integrate the pro-Russian regions of Adzharia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia.

Within months, he managed to oust Adzharia’s strongman, Aslan Abashidze. He won kudos at home for toughness, but Georgians soon learned that Saakashvili could be as tough with internal opposition. Political opponents were sometimes jailed and often ignored or mocked.

The opposition accuses him of behaving like a king. A man once thought of as emotional and democratic increasingly has been called intemperate and autocratic. Some regard him as reckless in his pursuit of the breakaway regions.

Last year Saakashvili declared a 15-day state of emergency after riot police battled protesters demanding parliamentary elections that he had postponed. Saakashvili blamed Moscow for fostering the protests. He went on television to dismiss the protesters as “hoodlums who don’t deserve to be taken seriously,” Legvold recalled.

The success in Adzharia may have emboldened Saakashvili to go after South Ossetia in 2004. He sent in troops, but ran up against stronger than expected opposition from locals and was forced to withdraw.

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His decision to go in again now has left some analysts scratching their heads.

“Possibly they thought they could move quickly enough to present the Russians with a fait accompli,” said Cory Welt, a professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at Georgetown University.

Legvold at Columbia University said Saakashvili erred in thinking the Russians would allow him such a strategic victory in South Ossetia.

“The heart of the matter is a miscalculation that the Russians would not react at the level they reacted and push back as they did,” Legvold said. “A lot of the crockery is broken and he’s greatly weakened. He’s made his political pledge to return these territories to Georgia nearly impossible.”

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marjorie.miller@latimes.com

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Miller reported from Los Angeles and Baum from New York.


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